Globalisation and Economic Development: A Lesson from History

by Luigi Pascali (Pompeu Fabra University)

History teaches us that globalisation does not automatically translate into economic development.

How does globalisation affect development? This question has a long tradition in economics and has been much debated both in the academia and in policy circles. Neoclassical theories tell us that reducing trade barriers across countries should provide net benefits to individual economies by making markets more efficient and stimulating competition. Testing these theories, however, turns out to be difficult: rich countries are generally also those that trade the most, but is it trade that makes them rich, or do they trade more because they are rich to start with?

The ideal way to answer to these questions would be through an experiment, in which we randomly divide all the countries of the world into two groups and then we reduce trade costs for one group, while keeping trade costs constant for the other group. The difference in the observed GDP growth in the following years between the two set of countries would eventually provide us with an estimate of the impact of trade integration on development.

It turns out that history can provide us with such an experiment. The invention of the steamship in the late 19th century greatly reduced trade costs for some countries but not for others; whether a country was able to reduce its trade costs as a result of this innovation was the result of its geography, rather than economic forces. In a recent paper (Pascali, forthcoming), this natural experiment is used to assess the causal impact of trade on development.

The Experiment

Before the steamship, sea routes were shaped by winds. As an example, consider Figure 1, which illustrates a series of journeys made by British sailing ships in the 19th century, between England, the Cape of Good Hope and Java, and Figure 2, which depicts the prevailing sea-surface winds in the world.  Winds tend to follow a clockwise pattern in the North Atlantic; consequently, sailing ships would sail westward from Western Europe, after travelling south to 30 N latitude and reaching the ‘trade winds’, thus arriving in the Caribbean, rather than travelling straight to North America. The result is that trade systems historically tended to follow a triangular pattern between Europe, Africa, the West Indies and the United States. Furthermore, because in the South Atlantic winds tend to blow counterclockwise, sailing ships would not sail directly southward to the Cape of Good Hope; rather, they would first sail southwest toward Brazil and then move east to the Cape of Good Hope at 30 S latitude.

Figure 1. 15 journeys made by British ships between 1800 and 1860

fig 1

Notes: These journeys were randomly selected from the CLIWOC dataset among all voyages between England and Java comprised in the dataset. 


Figure 2. Prevailing winds in May (between 2000 and 2002)

fig 2

Note: direction of wind defined by the direction of the arrow and speed by the length of the arrow. 


The invention and subsequent development of the steamship was a watershed event in maritime transport and was the major driver of the first wave of trade globalisation (1870-1913), an increase in international trade that was unprecedented in human history. For the first time, vessels were not at the mercy of the winds, and trade routes became independent of wind patterns.

The steam engine, however, reduced shipping times in a disproportionate manner across trade routes, depending on the type of winds that vessels used to face throughout their journeys. In some routes, shipping times were cut by more than half, while in some others the change was minimal.

These asymmetric changes in shipping times (and related trade costs) across countries are used as a natural experiment, to explore the effect of international trade on economic development.


Exploiting the random variation in trade costs, generated by the transition from sail to steam, this research documents that the consequences of the first wave of trade globalisation on development were not necessarily positive. On a sample of 36 countries, the average impact, in the short run, was a reduction in per-capita GDP, population density and urbanisation rates.

This average negative impact, however, masks large differences across different groups of countries.

Firstly, the initial wave of trade globalisation turned out to be particularly detrimental in countries that were already less economically developed to start with and it was probably the major reason behind the Great Divergence, the economic divergence observed between the richest countries and the rest of the world, in the second-half of the nineteenth century.

Secondly, trade turned out to be very beneficial for countries that were characterised by strong constraints on executive power, a distinct feature of the institutional environment that has been demonstrated to favour private investment.

Why should we expect institutions to be crucial to benefiting from trade? A common argument is that a country with ‘good’ institutions will suffer less from the hold-up under-investment problem in those industries that intensively rely on relationship-specific assets. In this sense, good institutions are a crucial source of comparative advantage in non-agricultural sectors, in which the hold-up problem is more binding. These results confirm this theoretical prediction: a reduction in trade costs increased the share of exports in non-agricultural products, and the share of the population living in large cities, only in those countries characterised by stronger constraints on the executive power.


How did the rise in international trade affect economic development? This research addressed this question using novel trade data and an historical experiment of history. It finds that 1) the adoption of the steamship had a major impact on patterns of international trade worldwide, 2) only a small number of countries, characterised by more inclusive institutions, benefited from trade integration, and 3) globalisation was the major driver of the Great Divergence.

Policymakers who are willing to learn from history are advised to consider that a reduction in trade barriers across countries does not automatically produce (at least in the short-run) large positive effects on economic development and can increase inequality across nations.


This article is based on research presented in the following paper: “The Wind of Change: Maritime Technology, Trade and Economic Development”, The American Economic Review, forthcoming. The associated working paper is available on the CAGE website

Safe-haven asset: property speculation in medieval England

by Adrian Bell, Chris Brooks and Helen Killick (ICMA Centre, University of Reading)


While we might imagine the medieval English property market to have been predominantly ‘feudal’ in nature and therefore relatively static, this research reveals that in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, it demonstrated increasing signs of commercialisation.

The study, funded by the Leverhulme Trust, finds that a series of demographic crises in the fourteenth century caused an increase in market activity, as opportunities for property ownership were opened up to new sections of society.

Chief among these was the Black Death of 1348-50, which wiped out over a third of the population. In contrast with previous research, this research shows that after a brief downturn in the immediate aftermath of the plague, the English market in freehold property experienced a surge in activity; between 1353 and 1370, the number of transactions per year almost doubled in number.

The Black Death prompted aristocratic landowners to dispose of their estates, as the high death toll meant that they no longer had access to the labour with which to cultivate them. At the same time, the gentry and professional classes sought to buy up land as a means of social advancement, resulting in a widespread downward redistribution of land.

In light of the fact that during this period labour shortages made land much less profitable in terms of agricultural production, we might expect property prices to have fallen.

Instead, this research demonstrates that this was not the case: the price of freehold land remained robust and certain types of property (such as manors and residential buildings) even rose in value. This is attributed to the fact that increasing geographical and social mobility during this period allowed for greater opportunities for property acquisition, and thus the development of property as a commercial asset.

This is indicated by changes in patterns of behaviour among buyers. The data suggest that an increasing number of people from the late fourteenth century onwards engaged in property speculation – in other words, purchase for the purposes of investment rather than consumption.

These investors purchased multiple properties, often at a considerable distance from their place of residence, and sometimes clubbed together with other buyers to form syndicates. They were often wealthy London merchants, who had acquired large amounts of disposable capital through their commercial activities.

The commodification of housing is a subject that has been much debated in recent years. By exploring the origins of property as an ‘asset class’ in the pre-modern economy, this research draws inevitable comparisons with the modern context: in medieval times, much as now, ‘bricks and mortar’ were viewed as a secure financial investment.

How to achieve a more compassionate capitalism: look back to medieval Cambridge

by Catherine Casson (University of Manchester), Mark Casson (University of Reading), John Lee (University of York), Katie Phillips (University of Reading)


How can modern economies reconcile the pursuit of international competitiveness with promotion of the common good? They could learn from the medieval period!

Contrary to popular belief, England in the late thirteenth century had a dynamic economy. Legal advances created a lively property market; cutting-edge technologies improved water management and bridge-building; commodity trade expanded; and towns grew dramatically, both in number and size.

But this was not an early form of individualistic capitalism. Family bonds were strong and community loyalty was intense. Economic ‘winners’ showed compassion for losers, rather than contempt.

Thirteenth-century expansion was not based on a consumer-driven boom. Its focus was on local infrastructure and local wellbeing. City churches were financed by local people to meet the needs of local people. Hospitals cared for the old, the poor and the needy, including special facilities for those affected by disease. Their legacy remains with us today: the most valuable real estate in a modern city is often occupied by medieval churches and hospitals.

Using recently discovered documents and novel statistical techniques, we have analysed the histories of over one thousand properties in medieval Cambridge over this period. Using evidence from the so-called ‘Second Domesday’ – the Hundred Rolls of 1279 – we show how wealth accumulated by successful businesses was recycled back into the community through support for local churches and hospitals and for itinerant preachers based in the town.

Town government was devolved by the king and queen to the mayor and bailiffs, and they encouraged the development of guilds, which promoted cooperation. New professions emerged in response to the growing demand for legal and administrative services.

The business centre of Cambridge shifted south as the town expanded. ‘New wealth’ replaced ‘old wealth’ as a local commercial class replaced Norman aristocrats. But local pride and religious devotion – expressed through high levels of charitable giving – helped spread the economic benefits throughout the town community.

This self-sustaining system was, however, broken in the 1340s by the Black Death, the outbreak of the Hundred Years War and the punitive levels of taxation imposed on towns thereafter. When prosperity returned in the Tudor period, a more ruthless form of capitalism took root, and it is this ruthless form of capitalism whose legacy remains with us today.

From NEP-HIS Blog: ‘The market turn: From social democracy to market liberalism’, by Avner Offer

The market turn: From social democracy to market liberalism By Avner Offer, All Souls College, University of Oxford ( Abstract: Social democracy and market liberalism offered different solutions to the same problem: how to provide for life-cycle dependency. Social democracy makes lateral transfers from producers to dependents by means of progressive taxation. Market liberalism uses […]

via How do we eliminate wealth inequality and financial fragility? — The NEP-HIS Blog

From VOX – British wellbeing 1780-1850: Measuring the impact of industrialisation on wages, health, inequality, and working time

by Daniel Gallardo Albarrán, appeared on 22nd May 2016


Repost – Gentlemen and capitalism: some questions

by Dave Postles, University of Hertfordshire

Consequent upon Wiener’s and Rubinstein’s research respectively into culture and industrial capital and ‘men of wealth’, Cain et al. embarked upon the elucidation of ‘gentlemanly capitalism’, which has become a paradigm of English entrepreneurship, status and the performance of the economy.(1) Perhaps, however, we can illustrate a dichotomy by reference to contemporary literature and ethnographic writing. Ostensibly, Henry Wilcox represents this ethos of gentlemanly capitalism, although his company is a commercial enterprise rather than industrial. We should recollect, however, that, although he purchased the Onibury estate (Clun, Shropshire), he really was not enamoured of the countryside, visited the estate rarely, and abandoned it when an unpleasant incident occurred there. Nor was he especially attracted to his wife’s Howards End. His countenance of both arose from expectations of status and family rather than a desire to enjoy the lifestyle of the country elite. His natural environment was the City.(2) In contrast, Jack London excoriated the 400,000 gentlemen in the 1881 census, ‘of no occupation’ and ‘unprofitable’.(3) Such a number could not have been composed of either retired industrialists or ‘men of wealth’.

Read the full article here:


From WSJ – The Fall of the Unions Paved the Way for Donald Trump

Working-class whites once had a political home at the union hall; now they’ve found solidarity in a new populist movement

“There are two great material tasks in life,” declared John L. Lewis, the autocratic yet beloved head of the powerful United Mine Workers, to his followers during the 1940 presidential campaign. “The first is to achieve or acquire something of value or something that is desirable…The second task is to prevent some scoundrel from taking it away from you.”

The cheers and loyalty that such sentiments long evoked across the Rust Belt are worth recalling in the wake of Donald Trump’s shocking victory. Pundits across the ideological spectrum are busily repeating the obvious: White working-class men and women vented their frustrations at global elites, well-educated liberals, a condescending media and a capable but sometimes dissembling Democratic candidate in a pantsuit.

You can read the rest of the article on the Wall Street Journal online: